A Thousand Words

Cameras and telephones are coming together—and bringing people together—in ways that can shape society

The technology world keeps wrestling with the "clock radio" question. This is the ever-changing attempt to figure out which devices can usefully be merged or combined, given the technology of the moment, and which ones still work best on their own.

It now seems obvious that bedside alarm clocks should come with radios or CD players built in. But it was not so obvious until both the clocks and the sound systems became small, cheap, and digitally controlled. The evolving design of cell phones combined with Palm- or BlackBerry-style PDAs reflects constant tension along this frontier, as companies struggle to devise something small and sleek enough to be an attractive cell phone yet big and stable enough to contain a workable keyboard.

Perhaps I just lack vision, but if asked ten years ago, I would never have guessed that one of the most promising hybrids at the start of the new century would arise from the union of the camera and the telephone. Yet there is very strong evidence that the camera phone will soon seem as natural a combination as the clock radio. It already constitutes a huge market success. Somewhere around 300 million camera phones were sold worldwide last year, mainly by Nokia, Samsung, Motorola, and the other familiar providers. For at least three years, camera phones have outsold "normal" digital cameras, and the gap is widening. "We're still just at the beginning of the process," says Marc Davis, the founding director of Yahoo Research Berkeley, a partnership between Yahoo and the University of California that has undertaken research on the uses and effects of camera phones. "It is like the Internet in 1995"—when wireless access, always-on connections, and quick-and-easy search systems were conceptually foreseeable but not yet familiar, everyday practices.

At the moment, the camera phones available in America have limitations reminiscent of those of the early Internet devices. On many, the resolution is not very good. The clarity of digital photographs is measured by "megapixels—essentially, how many dots make up each image. Ordinary digital cameras now come with resolutions of three or four megapixels, and top-of-the-line models now have seven and up. These create images so detailed that even cropped portions retain clarity when enlarged. Many of today's camera phones create one- or two-megapixel images. They typically lack a flash. Their lenses are very simple, like those in disposable cameras, so most of them can't zoom or be precisely focused. And under many existing wireless service plans, sending photos from the camera to online storage sites or to other users can be complicated and expensive. According to a recent survey, some 60 to 70 percent of American camera-phone users rarely get their photos out of the phone and into a computer, or send them to someone else.

But low-res images, primitive lenses, no flash, and complications in sending—that's just for now! Because models and offerings are changing so rapidly, the only buying advice I'd dare offer is to view three megapixels as a threshold. With resolution less than that, a phone camera will be an extra device; with that or more, and with a flash, it can be your "real" camera. Three-megapixel models, with flash, are coming onto the market, and better ones shouldn't be far behind, given progress in Asia and Europe. Last year Samsung offered the first eight-megapixel product—in Korea. Camera-phone use is more widespread in Europe and much of Asia than in America, and wireless coverage is generally better. (This brings up a related theme: the pathetic backwardness of the United States in all things wireless. More on this another time.)

"People who call themselves photographers will probably always rely on specialized cameras," Davis says. "But for the vast majority of people who take pictures, we're nearing the point where they'll find themselves using the camera inside their phone." Assuming he's right, why will that matter? The more I talk to people in this field, the more convinced I am by their argument that the camera-phone era really will change individual, social, and possibly even political behavior.

That change will start with people's actually being able to find, use, and show around their rapidly expanding collection of digital photos. This offers hope for solving the 'shoebox problem,'" says Mor Naaman, also of Yahoo Research Berkeley and a veteran of Stanford's computer-science department. The collection of digital photos most people quickly amass is, if anything, harder to make use of than the box of snapshots it replaced. Digital photos pile up faster; scanning through them can be slow and cumbersome; and their identifying labels tend to be completely meaningless—like this label for a picture I recently took of my family with my regular digital camera: P1010008.JPG. Naaman's research involves ways pictures taken with camera phones can be automatically labeled and classified, so the search for a shot from the Trevi Fountain or last year's birthday will become shorter and more satisfying.

Every camera-phone shot carries information that helps classify it. "For one thing, it's very likely that the photo was taken by you, or is of you," Naaman says. "People share their cameras but usually not their phones." The photo also has an exact time stamp, because a camera phone is always updating its time from the service provider's network. This avoids the problem that plagues my own digital photos: most appear to have been taken on January 1, 2000, because my camera loses its date whenever I change the batteries, and I long ago grew tired of resetting it. A camera phone can also record where a picture was taken. Mobile-phone networks can keep track of a phone while it's in use, either through GPS receivers built into some models or by triangulation on nearby cell towers. "Geotagged" photos from such systems can be directly uploaded to sites like geosnapper.com, where they become part of a searchable collection.

On his Stanford Web site, reachable through tinyurl.com/c5rx7, Naaman shows what his auto-classification tool can do. He has posted several thousand of his own photos, which the system has categorized by location, time of day, season, and so on. It's a step up from the shoebox. An automated system obviously requires more computing power than is now available in the camera phone itself; working prototypes of such services already exist. Other software being tested automatically recognizes faces, or landmarks, or kinds of social events.

Camera phones, apart from their role in classifying photos you might have taken in any case (photos from regular digital cameras don't come with automatic location data, and few have an accurate time), seem likely to mark a change in the kinds of pictures people take. Caterina Fake, the founder of the photo-sharing site Flickr, says that whenever she gets off an airplane flight, she snaps a picture in the baggage area and sends it immediately to her mother: "She always worries about planes, and this lets her sleep at night." Nancy Van House, a Berkeley professor whose current project involves "the social uses of personal photography," says that she thinks of her phone as a kind of memo pad. "I find that I'm using it just to capture text," she says. "If I see a book in a bookstore I want to look at later, I take a picture of the cover, as a note to myself."

Clearly, it makes a difference to have a camera always at hand, and to be able to instantly share what you see. Many of the projects under way at Flickr and Yahoo Berkeley involve what Marc Davis calls "sharing with others known and unknown." "Known others" would be friends or family members. Caterina Fake says that when a woman she knows was having a baby, the husband took his camera phone to the hospital and sent discreet progress pictures to a Web site, where friends could view them.

"Unknown others" are people linked only by sharing a common experience or interest. The unknown audience can include prospective travelers who view street scenes in Budapest or Rangoon posted on Flickr, and it can even extend to a broad news- consuming public, as journalists and onlookers equipped with camera phones record ever more of the world's hard news. After the London subway bombings last July, hundreds of civilians with camera phones posted photos on Web sites in greater variety, and faster, than official news organizations did. International newspapers now post amateur camera-phone pictures of events that news photographers have been unable to get to. American guards at Abu Ghraib used camera phones to take and share photos of themselves posing with prisoners. After the photos became public, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued a sweeping ban on camera phones at U.S. military installations in Iraq.

Systems built into Flickr and similar photo-sharing sites, Davis says, will make "personal memory, and social and global memory, accessible in a way it was not before." Such language usually makes me cringe. But then I think of the connections I've made and valued through Internet affinity groups, and the many events where I would have liked to see what other people noticed, and I think I know what he means.